Arts

William Caulfield revives the many faces – and voices – of James Young

As another airing of William Caulfield's tribute to the late, much-loved Northern Ireland comedian James Young comes to Belfast, the Bangor funnyman tells Gail Bell how he was meant to keep his comedy hero's sketches alive for a new generation

The many faces of William Caulfield as seen in his James Young tribute show
Gail Bell

IT'S all in the voice and there's quite a few of those currently bouncing around in the over-loaded head of Northern Ireland funnyman William Caulfield.

The comedian, who brings his sell-out 100 Years of Our Jimmy tour to Belfast next week, has been falling asleep each night with the distinctive tones of the Cherry Valley Lady and Big Derek the window cleaner buzzing in both ears.

It is an expected consequence, reasons the 59-year-old, after having lived and breathed all of the late Ballymoney-born comic James Young's favourite characters in preparation for the new tour which launches tomorrow night at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey.

Fortuitously, the comedian is a long-time fan of Young who made people laugh at their own bigotry and intolerance for the best part of three decades with his richly observed, stereotypical Belfastians.

"There was no television in our house when I was a child, but I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that my brother had recorded the James Young LPs on to and I immersed myself in the humour and comedy of the man," Caulfield recalls.

"I was amazed at all his different characters and the way he could make people laugh one minute and cry the next. I think James Young was especially good at making us laugh at ourselves and the stupidity of what was going on.

"One of my favourites is Orange Lily because, while she was portrayed as so obviously Protestant, because of the things she said and did, she actually poked fun at her own community. That brought about a situation where both sides of the audience embraced her for different reasons."

But, while much of the material in the tribute act is "original James Young", "some new stuff" has been added to up-date familiar characters such as Billy Hulk, Emily Beattie and Lily O'Condriac.

"The really funny thing," Caulfield observes wryly, "is that the moral of all the sketches is exactly the same today – that means either James Young was ahead of his time or else we haven't moved on very much at all.

"If you walk down High Street in Belfast any day of the week, you will still meet two women linking arms as they do their shopping, two best friends – and that's Emily Beattie and Lily O'Condriac. And, if you're walking home late on a Friday night, you'll still bump into the wee drunk man who's got his pay and spent the most of it and is now heading home to the missus – and that's Willie Simpson."

Political comedy isn't really his niche, but Caulfield's commitment to the job at hand is such that, as well as getting inside the mixed-up heads of his larger-than-life personalities, he has actually taken to "reading the news" and submerging himself in "all the horrors" that pass for daily politics in Northern Ireland.

"I have to keep an eye on the news, which I generally avoid at all costs because it is so depressing," he says. "But the original sketches have to be brought up to date with new references, so I always start by guessing what these characters would be doing in 2019.

"You have to include some of the old material in a tribute show like this because, at the end of the night, when I shake people's hands at the door, they would ask me why I left out such-and-such in a sketch. It's a bit like somebody doing an Elvis Presley show and not singing Love Me Tender."

It is still a thing of wonder for the Bangor entertainer – who always adheres to a self-imposed 'No filth, no foul language' rule in his stand-up – that he has been able to bring James Young to life on stage again, following a chance meeting almost 50 years ago.

"I love doing this show," he enthuses, "because I was at an event in Belfast in 1972 with my school mates – Expo '72 in the King's Hall, I think it was – and after watching the sheep-shearing competition and things like that, they announced a surprise 15-minute cabaret act and it was James Young.

"I had never seen the man before, but I knew every word he had ever uttered because of listening to those LPs and so I sat and watched him in awe. I was mouthing everything he was saying and when the show ended, I shook hands with him and got his autograph. Little did my 12-year-old self know that I would be taking ownership of the same material and making his fans laugh again decades later."

Caulfield, who claims to be "quiet and introverted" off-stage, honed his career early and recalls imitating teachers as a cheeky 12-year-old and telling jokes to visitors to the family home in Lurgan on a Sunday evening after church.

"It was always there, I suppose, but certainly, I never thought I would have had a career in comedy," he muses. "For me, though, this is the best job in the world, making people laugh. If you're walking down the street today, you'll meet people and you'll have no idea what they're going through in life.

"If, for two hours, I can get them to forget their worries, their troubles, their difficulties, and just enjoy themselves, then that, to me, is a job well done."

:: 100 Years of Our Jimmy comes to Belfast's Grand Opera House on January 16 and 17.

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